Grim oceanic news out of the Pacific early this morning. 8.9 is a horrifying number, & the images out of Japan are on an absurd, inhuman scale, like something out of an old movie. We called cousin Lucy in Hawaii at 3 am her time, and were relieved to hear they’d moved to higher ground. Deep rumblings crossing the deep Pacific today…
Everything, even horrible things, makes me think of books, and this morning it’s Kimberly Patton’s excellent The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils, a study of “Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean” (2007). She’s a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, & she’s looking here at a tradition of an all-cleansing ocean she locates in Euripides, in Inuit mythology, and in ancient Hindu texts. She also works closely with responses to the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
It’s a smart, resonant book that explores ancient ideas of pollution and cleansing and argues that they have real policy implications in the present, in our global unwillingness to come to terms with marine pollution and its consequences. Her suggestion that “environmental science — and environmental advocay — ignores the history of religion at a case” (xii) certainly convinces me. She also has interesting things to say about the Greek distinction between the salt sea, Pontus, on which Odysseus struggles, and the encircling fresh-water Okeanos, which is “full of eschatological peril” (63).
“The sea demands a reckoning” (123) she writes while exploring ancient Hindu texts. A grim lesson on a day like today. Sometimes it’s hard to separate moral and practical responses to our oceanic world.